The past year has been regarded as a revolutionary time for Asian representation, and it seems to begin with what came to be known as "Asian August" in 2018. The momentum from "Asian August" has carried through into 2019. A recently prominent figure in Asian representation is Gemma Chan, who starred in "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Captain Marvel." Her role as Bess of Hardwick in "Mary Queen of Scots," however, drew some criticism from viewers, who questioned the casting of an Asian woman as a white historical figure. Chan has since responded to this criticism in her Allure cover story.
Chan stated in Allure, "Why are actors of color, who have fewer opportunities anyway, only allowed to play their own race? And sometimes they're not even allowed to play their own race." To this, she added, "If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick." She makes an important point about representation here: many roles of historical figures of color have been played by white actors. Actors of color have very few opportunities, and in many cases, are even denied roles of historical figures of their race.
It's true that a major argument for better representation has been accuracy to the source material, but the actual issue of representation is not about historical accuracy. The push for better representation is a push to see more actors of color onscreen and to open up more opportunities for actors of color, especially when white actors are placed in roles of historical figures of color. Gemma Chan brings up John Wayne, who was in yellowface for his role of Genghis Khan.
The barring of actors of color, who already have fewer opportunities, from the roles of these historical figures is the true problem, not a lack of accuracy to the source material. There is backlash when a white actor plays the role of a person of color because actors of color already have very limited opportunities.
Gemma Chan further states that "art should reflect life now" and that "If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that's how it was, and that's not how it was." Her role in "Mary Queen of Scots" aids in fighting the whitewashing of history and of film and television as a whole. She also comments on her compound racial identity, stating that she feels both Asian and British. This is especially important to members of the Asian diaspora who are stereotyped as "perpetual foreigners."
Gemma Chan's role in a period film solidifies her British identity, helping to break down the "perpetual foreigner" stereotype and assert that her being Asian does not take away from her being British. For members of the Asian diaspora, it is important to see an Asian actress in a role where she can embrace the duality of her identity rather than having to be exclusively Chinese or British. Gemma Chan's casting in "Mary Queen of Scots" has far more reach and impact beyond the issue of historical accuracy. Seeing an Asian actor in a European or American period film is very rare, and Chan's role should be celebrated for its importance to Asian representation rather than criticized for not being historically accurate.